Four Myths About Binge Eating Disorder, Explained

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has performed research indicating that as much as 2.8 percent of Americans of all genders will show signs of binge eating disorder (BED) at some time in their life. This is higher than any other kind of eating disorder, making it the most common eating disorder in the United States. Despite the frequency of this disorder,it remains one of the most misunderstood mental health disorders, to the point where people may think it is a simple case of overeating. This misconception may lead the disorder to go underdiagnosed and under-treated.

Because it’s so misunderstood, many people with binge eating disorder aren’t aware of the fact that they are dealing with disordered eating, and consequently do not seek out psychiatric or behavioral treatment.There is an unfortunate tendency for people to blame the symptoms of this disorder on a lack of willpower surrounding their eating habits. As a leading eating disorder treatment center, Oliver-Pyatt Centers hopes with this blog to set aside some of the myths surrounding binge eating disorder; after all, the best way to foster understanding is to first get the myths and misconceptions out of the way. Let’s examine some of the misconceptions that come with this dangerous yet misunderstood disorder:

Myth #1: Binge eating disorder is just overeating.

The terms “binge eating” and “overeating”are often used interchangeably,but they are quite different in psychiatric terms. Oftentimes people joke about “binging” on a holiday or “eating their feelings.” However, occasionally eating too much or stress eating are not disorders; binge eating disorder is.When binge eating disorder is present,binge eating episodes are frequent and repeated. People with binge eating disorder have a strong feeling of losing control during their binge eating episodes, and this goes far beyond simply eating past feeling full.

The difference between binge eating disorder and overeating can be determined by the symptoms.To make a diagnosis, mental health professionals rely on the DSM-V to pinpoint specific symptoms of each disorder. Some of the binge eating disorder symptoms listed there include:

  • Being unable to stop eating or losing control of that ability.
  • Repeated binge eating episodes over weeks or months.
  • Eating food very rapidly.
  • Eating to the point that it causes actual physical pain.
  • Being secretive about binge eating episodes.
  • Feeling a sense of shame about binge eating episodes.
  • Having a distorted body image or body dysmorphic disorder, especially considering themselves to be “fat” or overweight whether or not this is medically true.

The main difference between someone who occasionally eats too much or binges from time to time and someone with binge eating disorder is that the latter will have an inability to control the act of eating too much. This often comes with intense feelings of guilt or self-loathing about the binge eating episode. This is often tied to their feelings of being overweight and triggered by hunger caused by dieting.

While many people who occasionally overeat might feel guilty about taking that dessert after a meal or going for a second helping, this is an occasional slip without feelings of compulsion to engage in bingeeating sessions. People with binge eating disorder are more likely to keep their binge eating episodes secret, and also experience a loss of control over their eating. This presents as a compulsion to engage in binge eating episodes.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder can also vary according to the individual as well as intersect with other eating disorder like bulimia nervosa, which can make the condition hard to diagnose. For example, some people who have BED will binge on food regularly or even daily, while others may alternate between purging and not purging.

Myth #2: Someone with binge eating disorder just need to stop eating so much.

This plays into the common myth that binge eating disorder is caused by a lack of willpower; simply eating less is counterproductive for someone with the disorder. Binge eating disorder recovery centers and the medical community have made clear the distinctions between disordered eating and occasional overindulgence. Because of this, binge eating disorder was finally listed in the latest DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. According to the National Eating Disorder Association:

“The previous DSM-IV was released in 1994 and binge eating was only listed in Appendix B and had to be diagnosed with the non-specific “EDNOS” (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).”

In the past,the lack of consensus diagnostic criteria almost certainly prevented people in need of binge eating treatment from getting the help they needed. Luckily, the most recent update of the DSM may be changing that. Before that update, advocacy and several research studies were able to prove that people with binge eating symptoms could have a real, psychiatric condition that needed treatment, and now they can be put into practice.

Binge eating disorder is more than a lack of willpower; a person with the disorder is not able to control their eating habits without treatment. Instead of telling someone to just “stop eating,” the correct course of action is to pursue psychological methods of behavioral correction and therapy. These might include:

  • Traditional talk therapy sessions
  • Family therapy and education to create a good family support system
  • Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT)
  • Mindfulness exercises that promote self-awareness
  • Nutritional rehabilitation and stabilization
  • Food and feelings therapy sessions to establish the underlying causes of disordered eating behaviors

The ideal design of a binge eating disorder treatment program will help the individual learn to improve their relationship with food and eating. Integral to this is recognizing the things that trigger binge eating behaviors and understanding the root causes of the disorder behaviors. Trying to control food intake through willpower or controlled eating is inadequate to treat binge eating disorder – in fact, dieting is often a contributing cause to the development of the disorder.

In many cases, driven by distorted body image, people will go on crash diets r severely restrict their eating in public, but in private engage in binge eating episodes. Other psychological conditions can also be present, such as mood disorders, anxiety, or even OCD. They can negatively affect self-esteem and exacerbate feelings of losing control. Therefore, it is critical for those receiving treatment to find a place that can build a unique, individualized plan for treatment.

Myth #3: Binge Eating Disorder sufferers are always overweight.

Binge eating disorder often results in a person becoming overweight, but patients don’t always have the same body types or sizes. Unlike bulimia nervosa, the binge eating episodes are not followed by purging behaviors like vomiting or laxative abuse, so some people believe binge eating disorder always causes weight gain.Many people with binge eating disorder do indeed gain weight because of their eating patterns. However, many others will diet to such an extreme level that the binge episodes don’t lead to noticeable weight gain.

Roughly two out of three binge eating disorder sufferers are medically considered obese. however, most obese people do not have binge eating disorder – the emotional and compulsive behavioral aspects of the disorder aren’t present. In modern treatment, body weight is not normally a major focus. Instead, the individual’s relationship with their body

Myth #4: Binge eating disorder doesn’t affect teenagers.

Binge eating disorders can affect people of all ages, including people of all genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.Up to 1.6 percent of adolescents have displayed signs of binge eating disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of adult women and roughly 2 percent of men. Although the age of onset is slightly higher for people with binge eating disorder than for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, it can and does affect adolescents.

Children can sometimes be harder to diagnose with binge eating disorder. Parents who are concerned about the possibility of their adolescent child developing binge eating disorder should learn about the disorder and how to identify it. Here are a few symptoms to look out for:

  • Food has gone missing from the kitchen
  • Finding hidden food containers/packaging in their room or other signs of hoarding
  • Witnessing a change in the child’s behavior, like avoiding meals or spending more time in their room
  • Seeing a major change in the child’s eating patterns, or a sudden desire to go on a diet
  • Drastic weight changes
  • Becoming obsessed with body weight and appearance

It is also important to realize that just because an adolescent eats a lot, it does not necessarily mean they are developing an eating disorder. The rapid growth caused by puberty usually leads to increased food intake, and weight may often fluctuate. It’s also a time when their body is changing quickly and they are becoming interested in attractiveness, which can influence their body image.

About half the people diagnosed with binge eating disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder, like general anxiety or PTSD. Because of this, treatment in both residential and day treatment settings usually includes a complete continuum of care to treat all co-occurring mental health conditions, as well as nutrition training and medical stabilization.

Understanding Binge Eating Disorder Is the Key to Recovery

As with every mental health disorder, learning about the symptoms and treatment of binge eating disorder greatly helps recovery. The various myths that surround binge eating disordercan hinder that recovery, so it’s important for people with the disorder and their loved ones to learn as much as they can about it. Symptoms of BED can be disregarded and overlooked by family members and loved ones who are under the impression that the condition can be something basic like just tending to overeat. There are fortunately many resources available to learn more. Our blog is a great place to start, as are NEDA and ANAD’s websites.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.